The video game industry hasn’t designed many games specifically for girls, but Star Stable has proven to be one of them with staying power.
Stockholm-based Star Stable Entertainment broke a lot of rules when it launched a massively multiplayer online game in 2012. It created its online horse game, Star Stable, for girls and young women. It charged a subscription fee ($ 8.50 a month) and built its own game engine.
15 million people have downloaded the game, and it has a monthly active user count of 600,000 players. That’s pretty good for a game that uses the archaic business model of subscription fees. And last week, the company announced a music label, Star Stable Music, with distribution to nearly 40 music sites including Spotify and Apple Music.
Star Stable is making players’ favorite in-game songs accessible beyond the game, and real-life musicians are representing the characters in the game like Lisa Peterson. Peterson’s first single, I’ll Be There, launched on Friday.
I talked about Star Stable and its new transmedia strategy with Taina Malen, chief marketing officer, at the DICE Summit last week in Las Vegas. She’ll be a speaker at our GamesBeat Summit 2019 event on April 23-24 in Los Angeles.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I think I last wrote about you in 2015. How much has change has there been since then?
Taina Malen: There’s been quite a lot of change. We’re now 138 people. We’ve outgrown two offices. We’re moving, and hopefully that’s the last time for a long time. We’re still in Stockholm, though. We’re still over 50 percent women, which is one of our biggest, greatest values. I think we were 56 percent when I met you last time, and we’re 51 or 52 percent now. We’ve grown from–now we’re about 600,000 average monthly users, with steady growth. Our audience crosses the U.S., Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia. The U.S. is still our biggest market.
GamesBeat: How active are you as far as — how often is it updating?
Malen: Still once a week. We’re keeping to weekly updates. What’s really new to us is we’ve built our own talent. Our YouTube and social channels are steadily growing. We have 260,000, 270,000 Instagram followers and more than that on YouTube, so we’re doing pretty well. That’s been a big focus for us on the marketing side. We’ve established music publishing and book publishing. We’re releasing our second book, in Swedish that is, out of a trilogy, in March. We’re translating it into English at the moment. And we’re building our own label for our music collaborations.
GamesBeat: Is that Nordic focused?
Malen: No, it’s not. The first artists — in our game, as you know, we have four or five Soul Riders. They’re our main characters. One of them, in the story, is actually a musician coming back from a tour. What we did is, we scouted to find an artist that could represent her in real life, but first released as the character. We released a snippet of the song in a Christmas calendar. It had 3.5 million streams. It released last Friday. I haven’t heard yet how it’s doing now, but it’s doing well in our community for sure.
That’s what we’re focusing on right now, building Lisa Peterson. Then we have a rock band as well. The band has been around on posters in the game since it started. They’re called the Miscreants. Now we’re realizing the band. We’ve found a really cool girl band, also in Sweden. But the next artist is definitely something we’re going to be looking at from an international point of view.
GamesBeat: Would you call this a transmedia strategy, or something else?
Malen: Right now we’re just calling it an extended business, really. But yeah, you could say it’s transmedia, of course, with the books and God knows what’s next.
GamesBeat: What age range is the game matching now?
Malen: Our core is between eight and 16 or 17. I’d say the absolute sweet spot is 13-14, 14 to be super exact. But still, tweens. The reason for the books and music, obviously, is trying to broaden and reach outside of our target audience, but also it’s what our fans do. Especially music. That’s where they are.
We’ve tried some other projects. We did a Jojo Siwa project with Nickelodeon, when it comes to music. We released her single last year, one of her singles, in the game, and did a collaboration with her. That worked really well. We can see that music resonates.
GamesBeat: How big is the game world? Is there a way to measure or express that?
Malen: You could probably measure it. I don’t really know. But it’s neverending. It hasn’t ended yet. We still have a lot of world left to release and explore.
GamesBeat: Is it the new horses that keep people coming back?
Malen: It’s the updates every week. It could be other horses. Obviously girls like to collect the horses. Our fans and players love the horses. But we also release quests and races. Once a year we’ve been releasing a new part of the world so far.
GamesBeat: I’ve seen other horse games in the past but none that I can remember that are still around. Are you off by yourself in this area now?
Malen: There are some games popping up now and again that we hear about. There’s one right now where I can’t remember the title. But not in the MMORPG niche. More in mobile.
GamesBeat: What do you think made it successful? Is it the fiction?
Malen: I think it’s the combination of a really great story and trying to make a game that talks to the audience in a way that’s mature and not patronizing. We’ve tried to always produce content that girls can aspire to. Building heroes is important for us. “Every girl is a hero” is the mantra. We try to produce content and updates that are true to that.
GamesBeat: Does it stray into an educational niche, or is it more purely fun?
Malen: I would say a little bit, but that’s not our main focus. Our focus is to keep it story-based, adding the fantasy and keeping it exciting. But there are a lot of learning moments in the game. As a player you go out and explore the world. You learn a lot of things. You have to build a bridge and work together to save the world from evil powers. That together piece is important, and the social piece is important.
We have a lot of text, about as much text as the Lord of the Rings. A lot of players enjoy that. A lot of younger players learn to read quickly because they have to learn to be able to play. Those are all components that add up. Our users are also creating a lot of content around the game. User-generated content is huge among our players.
GamesBeat: As far as the kind of games that appeal to girls, what else do you see out there? Do you think we’re at a high point or a low point for that kind of thing, in the whole market?
Malen: I think it’s just started. You see more and more girls–they don’t call themselves gamers yet, but they associate themselves with games. You see a lot of our players also playing games like the Sims, Fortnite, Roblox. Personally, when I go down to spend time at our gaming arenas — we have Inferno Online in Stockholm, which is one of the biggest online gaming centers in the world — I see more and more girls there. I know that more and more events for gamers are trying to cater to girls these days. We see it in the way we’re being approached by partners, potential partners.
GamesBeat: Have you done anything with brand partners in your game, advertising or things like that?
Malen: No, no.
GamesBeat: If there’s a bigger opportunity here, what do you think it will be in the future? When you say it’s beginning, what comes next?
Malen: For us at Star Stable, it’s more platforms, and also reaching outside with publishing, with music and other things that can tell our story or expand our story. Also bringing it out to more people than just our fans, the people that already play.
I think in general, I couldn’t say, but what we see and what I’d like to be part of is building a platform for girls in tech and gaming. We get a lot more attention now than we did. Obviously because we’re growing, but also as games in general become more and more equal. I used to work in the film industry, and I can see similarities. It’s easier for parents to relate to the idea that their kids are playing games. The stories are told in better ways.
As you can see when you go on YouTube, our community is fantastic. They create a lot of their own content. The amount of user-generated content and how they manage to do that, it’s amazing. It also shows how technically savvy a lot of young girls are. They hack the game. It’s fantastic. I have a 12-year-old myself, so I can tell. It’s completely different.
What’s also fun, when girls come to our office or we meet them at events, one of the first things they ask us is, “What computer should I get? Am I a gamer because I play Star Stable?” It’s in them. That’s what we see amongst the audience. A lot of them are really heavily into gear and computers.
GamesBeat: How many languages are you in right now?
Malen: 13 so far.
GamesBeat: Do you think you have an opportunity in Asia?
Malen: I think we could. A tween girl is a tween girl. But it’s not where our focus is. For us right now, we want to dig where we stand. We have a lot more work to do in these territories. The U.S. and Germany are our biggest markets to focus on for the next year at least.
GamesBeat: Have you raised money any time recently?
Malen: No, we haven’t. We’ve sold shares, private shares, but we’ve never needed to raise funding.
GamesBeat: As far as talent goes, what kind of people have you been hiring?
Malen: A lot of developers. We’ve grown across the board, really. Developers, designers, legal. Because of our unique product — we have a product that’s unique in the gaming industry, and a unique target audience — we’ve tried to hire as many women as possible, which isn’t the easiest thing. We’ve been hiring a lot in HR and talent organization, because we’re growing so fast. But I can see that in the next eight to 12 months, we’ll be hiring all different kinds of developers.
GamesBeat: You mentioned influencers, like on YouTube. Is that the best way you’ve found to reach new players, through social media?
Malen: What we’ve chosen to do is instead of using influencers and paid ambassadors, we created our own in-house. We set out to do our own show and go out on the road and record with them. They became superstars within the community.
Now, obviously the next thing to do for us is to work with influencers outside of our community. I think that’s important, but I also think it’s important to keep it real. Again, if an influencer or paid ambassador is promoting your game, it needs to be real. Otherwise, as with all marketing–you need to know how to play a game, for it to be trustworthy. We’ve done collaborations, as I said, with some artists and things like that. But we’re being careful with influencers and ambassadors.
GamesBeat: Are you mostly reinvesting in the same game, or at some point do you want to do a second one?
Malen: At some point, most likely. As to when, I have no idea. What we do right now is definitely invest in the same game. We have a lot to do with Star Stable, both the online game and the surrounding content.
GamesBeat: Do you have versions coming for new platforms in the future?
Malen: We’re PC only at the moment. We’re looking into that, absolutely. Our game is beautiful, and to capture that beauty, the bigger the screen, the better. But we also look at where the audience is.